Living in District 9's shadow is Chappie's destiny, since it refuses to challenge society in the same way as its spiritual predecessor.
What does it mean to be alive, and to be conscious? How does social class impact on the upbringing of a child? And what sort of threat does a sentient, artificially intelligent robot pose to society, should such a thing ever come to pass? South African director Neill Blomkamp poses these questions and more in Chappie, a bittersweet but thoughtful film that bears many hallmarks of District 9 but ultimately lives in its shadow.
Chappie himself is Scout number 22 (Sharlto Copley, in a mo-cap suit), one of scores of mass-produced androids built to bolster the Johannesberg police force. Meanwhile, Scout project manager Deon (Dev Patel) has been working on creating a computer program capable of human-level sentience without a subject to test it on.
After a messy firefight, Chappie is consigned to the scrapheap, and Deon has his test subject - albeit, stolen from his employers. The situation is complicated by a gang of criminals - headed up by Ninja and Yolandi Visser of hip-hop outfit Die Antwoord - who kidnap Deon and demand that he flip the killswitch for every Scout in the city.
Chappie’s development is akin to that of a child’s, and much of the movie’s heart lies in watching him learn and develop. The tug-of-war between Deon and Ninja forms the substance of the runtime: the robot’s education leaps from learning to read to discovering how to walk like a gangster, complete with hand at his metallic crotch.
His infantile naivety and confusion is heartbreaking: his unbreakable promise to Deon that he would never commit a crime is circumvented by Ninja’s careful words. The gangster enlists Chappie as a car thief by telling him that the cars have already been stolen, and simply need returned to their rightful owner. The scenes unfolding would be agonising to watch if Chappie wasn’t bawling at them about “daddy’s cars” while brandisihing a howling rubber chicken.
The side-story of a rival engineer (Hugh Jackman) and his heavy-weapon robot - not dissimilar to Robocop’s tragicomic ED–209, but with more missiles - takes a back seat to Chappie’s development and rightly so, because it opens up the searing wound of a dangerously lacking story. Jackman’s rival robot appears to have been built with funding provided from nowhere, as the company’s boss (Signourney Weaver) is uninterested in funding mass production. It exists as nothing more than a plot device.
The film’s largely grounded sense of near-future technology is also marred by some shortcut storytelling throughout - there’s a great deal of things just ‘working’ for convenience’s sake.
Despite a fantastic realm of visual effects and a positively robotic performance from Copley, Chappie is a film that bestows little impact upon the viewer. The robot himself is lovable, but little else within the two-hour runtime is not.
That it bears a great deal of similarity to District 9 is in fact Chappie’s strongest weakness. Blomkamp’s earlier work examined the issue of institutionalised racism against immigrants in South Africa through its race of prawn-like aliens; this dabbles in nothing quite so thought-provoking within a similar frame of time.